Eric Tippeconnic always had big shoes to fill.
His grandfather, John Tippeconnic, became the first member of the Comanche Nation to earn a college degree in 1926. He would go on to become the first member of any Nation to receive a Master’s degree in Arizona. That came from the former Arizona State Teachers College which is now Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Eric Tippeconnic upheld the family tradition of firsts in education by becoming the Comanche Tribe’s first professionally trained historian, earning his PhD in history from the University of New Mexico. He is now a professor of history at California State University San Marcos in the American Indian Studies department.
Three of Eric Tippeconnic’s four siblings – he’s the youngest – played Division One college sports.
He followed in their footsteps by playing inside linebacker at Colorado State University, registering an astonishing 190 tackles as a senior. He was named to the school’s All-Century team in 1992.
“If I wasn’t drawing, I was playing sports,” Tippeconnic (b. 1969, Nome, AK) told me of his childhood which was spent on the Hupa Reservation in Northern California, the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Tippeconnic started his college career as an art major, but that only lasted for about a year.
“I got tired of drawing and painting the same thing over and over and over again,” he recalled of his early days at CSU. “I would go into a class and we’d paint the same still life the whole semester. (The teacher) would just say, ‘change your position. Change your position.’ It was tedious and boring to me.”
Tippeconnic can now respect what his professors were trying to teach him – a comfort level painting any subject through repetition – but at the time, his head was elsewhere.
“I wanted to paint Native subject matter, I wanted to paint what I knew and what I experienced and what I was about,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in painting a still life with a drape over it and some old license plates and a flower; it had nothing to do with who I was as a person.”
The person Tippeconic has become is a husband, a father of four, a professor, an artist and a student again. He’s studying for a master’s degree in art history at Cal State Fullerton where he taught previously.
Screaming from Rooftops
As an artist, as a history professor, as a Native person, Tippeconnic comes at his art history studies from a uniquely informed perspective.
“It is a white, male, very Eurocentric approach to art,” Tippeconnic said of his courses, the same approach largely repeated across American academia.
And not only in art.
“Regardless of the field, whether it’s history or art history, constantly having to scream from the rooftops, ‘hey, this isn’t the only way to look at the world, it’s not the only histories out there,’” Tippeconnic said. “Most Americans should recognize Native history is a part of American history, but they don’t.”
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum’s April 2021 remark to a group of young conservatives that, “(European-descended white people) birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” bears testimony for how mainstream and contemporary this ignorance of the nation’s actual history is, even in so-called “educated” circles.
“That’s the number one battle that I have every single semester, regardless of what class I’m teaching, 90% of the students in there, (I) have to start from ground zero, build up the foundation, because they have zero knowledge of Native history,” Tippeconnic reports. “(Native history is) not taught, it’s not emphasized, in fact there’s movements in this country going on right now to get rid of that.”
Example A is the political right’s current attack on “critical race theory” as a principle of American history education, its wanting to continue whitewashing American history as has been done for generations instead of teaching children the facts of America’s founding on stolen Native land using slave labor and its white nationalist pursuits ever since from lynchings, race massacres, Jim Crow, Indian boarding schools, redlining, gerrymandering, policing, mass incarceration, broken treaties and countless other examples including the present day assault on voting rights.
“It’s frustrating because there’s very little recognition, so far, of Native artists and in history,” Tippeconnic said. “You’re constantly battling uphill, in the wind, against current trends that are always, ‘OK, how about more George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?’ It’s constant and so deeply embedded in not only the American psyche, but the Western psyche.”
George Washington. War hero. Statesman.
George Washington. Slaveholder. Town destroyer.
Thomas Jefferson. Architect. Visionary.
Thomas Jefferson, Debtor. Slaveholder. Rapist.
Both histories are accurate. Only one is widely taught and promoted in America.
“Native American history and Native American art has played a tremendous role in this country’s history long before it was a political entity,” Tippeconnic reminds. “Natives have participated in every moment and every conflict and everything that’s passed through in American history from long before this was a country. The simple things that seem like they’re Native History 101 are revolutionary ideas to a lot of college students.”
Tippeconnic lists democracy as one prominent example. While democracy as a form of government is usually credited to European precedents such as the Greeks, the major influence on American democracy and the Constitution comes from the Haudenosaunee or the League of the Iroquoi in upstate New York.
Art in Motion
Eric Tippeconnic’s art works as an extension of his history teaching and vice versa. He uses the motion of the Native figures he depicts to share the lesson.
“The motion for me is a metaphor for the fact that (Native people are) still here. Regardless of how horrible colonization and the history has been, we survived and in many cases we’re thriving, in some cases we’re still struggling,” Tippeconnic explains. “It’s a reminder and it’s akin to what I’m doing academically, it is shouting from the roof tops, ‘we’re here! We’re alive, we’re not not stuck in the 19th century.”
When portraying historic imagery, Tippeconnic does so with an important distinction.
“If I’m doing a subject matter in the 19th century or 18th century, (I want to show) people who are fully sovereign, who are completely free,” he said. “I don’t want to capture an image after they were colonized.”
That rule may seem confusing in light of his paintings of contemporary figures.
“When I do modern images – suit and ties – I get the contradiction on the surface level, but for me it’s more about we’re in business, we’re professors, we’re lawyers, we’re doctors; we’re adapted, we’re moving forward and we still have a foot and a connection to our cultural roots,” Tippeconnic explains.